Inspiration can strike in any form. This came a couple of nights ago in the form of a nightmare. Hello Freud, knock if you’re lurking around.
The elegant building was one of the oldest in town. Dating back to the sixteenth century, it had miraculously survived the bombing that in the early seventies had destroyed nearly completely that neighborhood. It had been offering daycare and babysitting for longer than memory could reach. Years. Decades. Maybe more. It was a manna for working parents. Or for single mothers like me.
I rarely needed anyone to look after my little girl at night, – my social life was nonexistent anyway, – but that day was an exception I couldn’t do without. My firm was hosting an important dinner, I had just gotten a promotion, I couldn’t duck out. Not that night.
“There is that old daycare on Oak Street, I know they keep children to sleep, why don’t you try?” suggested a coworker. And I did.
Sophia was four years old. Generally well behaving, except for those random tantrums so typical of her age, which made it sometimes impossible to reason with her. To be completely honest, her tantrums outnumbered by far the times she behaved. Which made me loathe even more the idea of leaving her for the night. What if she wouldn’t sleep? What if the babysitter couldn’t calm her down? What if she got hurt and the babysitter wouldn’t tell me? You hear so many things nowadays.
But the moment the door opened and an old lady welcomed me, every fear disappeared. Miss Whitley looked like Nanny McPhee with the ways of Mary Poppins. Sweet but resolute, competent without a pinch of self-conceit. I immediately felt in safe hands. And it was better anyway than a teenager whose only experience was attending at their little siblings.
So that night I entrusted Sophia to her care, with a gazillion recommendations and even more guilty kisses. It was just one night after all. Nothing bad could happen once she was asleep.
When I woke up a few hours later, dawn barely turning night into day, she was my first thought. All the worst images came to my mind. Sophia not wanting to sleep. Sophia having a tantrum because she wasn’t allowed chocolate cookies late at night. Maybe the babysitter granted her cookies and it would be even worse because then Sophia would expect the same from me. All I knew was that I had a horrible feeling.
My urging knock was followed by the immediate unlock of the door.
“Miss Moore, good morning, would you like a coffee?” Miss Whitley welcomed me with the same calm smile of the day before.
“Thank you, but no, I only came to pick Sophia. I hope she was good.” Of course she was good.
“Oh, she was, Sophia is a very good girl,” the woman reassured me.
Sophia wasn’t always a good girl. Especially with strangers. “Where is she?”
“Upstairs, still getting ready. She didn’t have breakfast yet, we weren’t expecting you this early.”
I realized, it was barely 7am. On a Saturday. But who could blame a mother for wanting her daughter back? Sophia could still nap later at home. In her own bed. “I should have called maybe.” Of course I should have called. Who on earth shows up at people’s doors at dawn?
“Would you follow me upstairs please?”
As we climbed the wooden stairs, I took in the surroundings. Outside the building was still old, but inside it had definitely been refurnished over the years to suit the needs of a daycare.
Miss Whitley led me into a room, probably the room Sophia had slept in? There was a bed, soft and fluffy, the bed of a princess, I thought. Pink duvet, glowing stars on the ceiling. And dolls. Many dolls. Some looked very old, some were brand new. It gave the idea of a miniaturized wax museum. They were there, a plastic parade staring at me. Almost disturbingly.
Then I noticed the dolls house on the floor. I had one too when I was a kid. Very similar to this one. It resembled in the appearance this same building. Old outside, the stairs in the middle, the bedroom with the princess bed. It gave me the shivers.
I turned the attention back to the dolls. And this time I noticed it. It couldn’t be my imagination. Most of them resembled the witches of the fables. Dressed as Snow White was the Evil Queen. Cinderella clothes were filled by the evil stepmother. Maleficent. The White Witch. This room was scaring me.
“Where’s Sophia?” I muttered, trying not show my upheaval.
“I’m here mommy!” My little girl squealed from the door, startling my already shaken heart.
In the relief of seeing her in one piece, I hugged her so tight that I almost broke her but she didn’t complain. “Are you okay?”
“I had so much fun!”
“That’s great baby!” I felt the need to run away while at the same time not pissing Miss Whitley who was standing right outside with an attentive eye on us. “Shall we go now?”
No complains? No tantrums that she wanted to keep a doll? Though, why would she even want to keep one of those dolls? They looked creepy.
I thanked the old woman, more politely and enthusiastic than I should, and climbed down the big stairs as fast as I could, my back hurting unnaturally in the effort of looking natural. I was expecting the door to lock me in, or something terrible. I didn’t know what. But something didn’t feel right.
Once finally outside, back in the daylight, I took Sophia for breakfast in her favorite cafeteria on the corner of Duke and Dearborn. She loved that place, she loved their croissants. If she had a tantrum about wanting two, like she always did, I was ready to yield and gave her what she wanted, such was the relief of having her back with me.
But she didn’t.
“You alright? Is your little belly full? You don’t want another croissant?”
“No mommy, I’m fine like this. Another croissant will give me a bellyache,” she explained with the funny wisdom of children. But for some reason, I wasn’t finding it funny that morning. Maybe she was only happy that I came back for her and didn’t abandon her like I threatened once? Damn. That time I hadn’t acted smartly. Kids tend to remember everything and always on the wrong moments.
I accepted her explanation and didn’t persist. Every kid has good days and bad days. Just like every adult.
But when bedtime came without a fight, I found myself wondering if maybe she was sitting on a flu.
“Do you want one of your dolls, baby?” I offered her, bracing myself for the hour long ritual of picking each one and changing her mind continuously.
“No mommy. I don’t want them.”
The parade of creepy faces popped before my eyes, food for nightmares. Maybe that’s why Sophia didn’t want hers anymore? But I didn’t feel like persisting so I hugged her, placed a kiss on her forehead and watched as she fell in a peaceful sleep.
The next day was a repeat. And so was the following. And the following again. Sophia was behaving like a perfect little girl. So perfect it started to unsettle me. I couldn’t pinpoint what disturbed me in her behavior, but I knew that it wasn’t her normal behavior.
So one morning I did what every mother would have done. I knocked on the daycare door.
A young woman, probably in her late twenties, opened the door. In the background I could hear the joyous screams of an infant. “May I help you?”
“I… I’m looking for Miss Whitley.”
The woman gave me an astonished look. “Sorry, I think you got the wrong address.”
What? The address was right. I was here only a few days before.
“Miss Whitley. The old babysitter. This is the daycare, right?” I didn’t realize my voice was shaking. I felt my cheeks burning and a knot tying right at my stomach. I took a step back, just to make sure I had knocked on the right door.
“This is the daycare, but there isn’t any Miss Whitley working here.”
My knees failed and I almost fell on the sidewalk.
“Are you okay, Madame?”
Who was that woman? Who was Miss Whitley? And what had she done to my Sophia?